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Rohnert Park to challenge verdict in man’s death during police confrontation

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The City of Rohnert Park will ask a U.S. District Court judge in San Francisco to overturn a jury’s verdict that awarded $4 million to the parents of a man who died during a confrontation with Rohnert Park Department of Safety officers at a motel in 2017.

Christopher and Marni Wroth’s son Branch Wroth, 41, died during a physical altercation with the officers at the Budget Inn on May 12,2017. The officers were responding to a call by a guard at the inn who said Wroth was acting strangely and refused to leave after checkout time.

At least six officers responded and determined Wroth was incoherent and in an altered state. The officers said Wroth claimed he had been poisoned by chemicals, according to the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office. The sheriff’s office investigated the in-custody death.

The officers learned there was a warrant for Wroth’s arrest, and he became combative and resisted, leading one officer to shoot him six times with a Taser, according to the sheriff’s office. Wroth was handcuffed, became unresponsive and died at the scene.

An autopsy by an independent pathologist determined Wroth might have suffered a heart attack while under the influence of methamphetamine immediately after the struggle, the sheriff’s office said.

The pathologist said Wroth’s death was a homicide, meaning he died at the hands of another but does not imply anyone is criminally liable for the death, the sheriff’s office said.

Wroth’s parents filed a civil rights complaint on Sept. 14, 2017 against the City of Rohnert Park and the officers who responded to the altercation. They claimed their son died of positional asphyxiation. The complaint states officers held Wroth down on his stomach on the floor with their knees in his back and ignored Wroth as he yelled for help and said he couldn’t breathe.

The jury deliberated four days before returning its verdict Thursday. The jury said the City of Rohnert Park failed to provide adequate training to five officers who responded, and the training policies of the City were inadequate for officers to handle unusual and recurring situations.

 The jury also found the City was deliberately indifferent to the consequences of its failure to train the police officers adequately, and that the failure to do so was the “moving force” behind Wroth’s death. The individual officers who responded to the incident were removed as defendants in the case before trial.

Rohnert Park Assistant City Manager Don Schwartz said the City has filed a motion challenging the validity of the claim about inadequate police training. A hearing date on the motion has not been set.

“If the judge agrees, the training claim and verdict would be invalid,” Schwartz said.

Schwartz also said Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch found all the officers acted lawfully and the use of force was warranted under the circumstances.

Ravitch’s report indicated two doctors concur the cardiac arrest was the cause if death and that there was a high level of methamphetamine in Wroth’s system, Schwartz said.

The Wroths’ attorney Izaak Schwaiger did not return phone calls and emails for comment Friday.

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